I spent the last day of February and the first day of March at Illinois TESOL. After my plenary, I had a session with teachers who wanted to discuss some of the activities I introduced in my plenary. I followed my usual practice of handing out 3 by 5 cards and asking teachers to write questions they wanted me to discuss with them. If I ask teachers to say aloud what they want to discuss only a few respond and the range of questions is much more narrow than when I ask everyone to write their questions.

The most frequent question teachers wrote on their 3 by 5 cards was about the value of memorizing dialogs. In subsequent blogs I will discuss other questions dealing with pronunciation, curriculum planning, teaching grammar, to name a few.

I love to memorize poems, lines from plays and songs. When I go for a walk or swim I often recite in my mind lines from plays, poems and songs, both in English and in Spanish, which I majored in in university.  But reciting lines and being able to speak English or Spanish, or any other language are totally separate activities!  Though I can say the opening lines of Don Quixote quite fluently, this ability to recall has no relationship to my ability to have a conversation in Spanish.

My Nigerian students loved to memorize poems. One of their favorites was one by Isaac Watts–How doth the busy bee. . . But their ability to recite the poem with a great deal of personal feeling had no relationship to their ability to speak, read write or listen to English.

So my response to the question about memorizing dialogs is that it is not useful for learning English. Poems, songs, lines from plays can be powerful ways to share our feelings at a party, in a conversation with people we meet. But once we say the lines our ability to converse is much more limited than than the language we used in our recall of the poem or lines from a play or song.

I think it is more important for students to use dialogs in textbooks as starting points to practice the patterns in the dialogs. If the first line is “As you know, my name is John. I was born in Chicago, Illinois, the home of the Chicago Bulls Basketball team, I think it is crucial that students substitute their own name and place of birth after they learn the line. In this way they are mastering not the information line but the pattern. If each student says what team is in their town they will master the pattern even if they forget the facts about the home team.

Saying the same pattern even with substitutions can become tiresome though. So the next step is to ask students to say the lines in

the dialog with their own personal substitutions in which they share personal information with different emotions. “Say the lines as if you are excited, bored, drunk, very tired, etc.

Language is a skill which means we need to practice lines, not memorize them. And practicing them with a range of emotions and substituting personal information that is true will make it more likely that the practice will be meaningful and require some thinking.

Memorization of lines is very useful but the lines we memorize are stored in a different place in our brains from the place where we store language we use.